Alexander Clark Real Estate

‘The Front Steps’: Remembering The Richmond’s Weird Drunken Beachside Squatter Carnival

Everyone loves a good neighborhood profile, but what happens if the neighborhood no longer exists? At The Front Steps, we profile it anyway–because you’ve got to know your roots.

Case in point, we’ve already written about how the Richmond transformed from a San Francisco outback into a thriving neighborhood and how factors as diverse as coastal sea lions to the foundation of Geary Boulevard made it happen.

There’s more to the story than that though–and one chapter of it includes a whole lot more illegal seaside moonshine peddling than you’d probably expect.

Come the end of 1883, traffic out to Ocean Beach near Lands End was way up thanks to a newly established railroad delivering sightseers to the waves and nearby Cliff House.

The big wheel behind that rail line was Leland Stanford–yes, the same Leland Stanford you are thinking of.

Stanford was at this point 20 years out of the governor’s office and a few years away from establishing the university that still bears his family name. But his public profile loomed as large as ever–which did not necessarily sit well with some people.

Chiefly: Rabble-rousing labor leader Connor Mooney and racist anti-Chinese activist Denis Kearney; both these men looked on Stanford as a robber baron (which, fair) and argued that the railroad, popular though it may be, was illegal and that Stanford’s cronies had run roughshod over the city to make it happen.

So they did the natural thing: created a liquor-fueled squatter encampment at the terminus of Stanford’s line, which is to say, right at the beach, near the Cliff House.

What else, right?

(The Cliff House in 1883, just as it was getting some very rowdy neighbors.)

For a brief but memorable period near the end of the 19th century, this was the Richmond’s nearest neighboring neighborhood: Mooneyville.

By newspaper accounts of the time, the protest settlement was mostly just a long strip of tents and lean-tos, starting at the train station and landing at the beach.

While this sounds like a blight on the natural landscape, a lot of beachgoers apparently didn’t mind–especially since the primary (and seemingly only) economy of Mooneyville was selling discount liquor and peddling a few other questionable hospitalities to all who came along. Carnival games (presumably crooked) added to the festival atmosphere.

Imagine if the modern response to tech-fueled gentrification worries in SF was to set up an illegal street fair at the Google campus and you’ll be somewhere in the ballpark of imagining Mooneyville-By-the-Sea.

History has not necessarily been kind to the Mooneyville memory: San Francisco history sage Gary Kamiya refers to the drunken midway as “just a scam” and its political feints as a “fig leaf.” And of course, both Mooney and Kearney themselves are correctly vilified for their exploitative politics.

Still, it’s possible for Mooneyville to have been both a genuine expression of anger at the moneyed class as well as a harebrained scheme–history can be at least that versatile.

The Mooneyville antics only lasted until the end of January 1884, demolished after weeks of conservative critics railing against it in the press. “Too long it has been flaunting its unwholesome, decency-defying banner to the breeze,” the Daily Alta California crowed, anticipating Mooneyville’s pending demise.

These days we perhaps prize the atmosphere of the Richmond as a quiet, peaceable place, and Ocean Beach as a meditative environment.

But creating a neighborhood–which is to say, a community–is not usually a peaceful process: It’s always a political process, with all of the rowdy push-and-pull and dirty dealings that that entails

That’s just as true today as it was 140 years ago: After all, just because we can’t see the carnival doesn’t mean it’s not still there.

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